Well, it is quite a thing to step into the shoes of someone who has achieved what my predecessor, Jayne Woodley, has achieved. An honour and quite humbling that she clearly saw in me someone who gave her the confidence that meant her moving on would be okay for OCF.
How did it happen? Well, my background is varied and covers frontline care of older people, humanitarian relief, Oxfordshire County Council, several local voluntary sector organisations, mental health and, most recently, a range of international start-ups and new initiatives. Being the son of a refugee, I am in part, a recent arrival both to the county and the country but my schooling was largely here, and I have lived here for most of my life.
Three months ago, my life took a change. Like many people the Coronavirus crisis had an impact on me personally and professionally. I was working internationally as a freelance consultant and, when the crisis hit, my work dried up. Knowing what I know about mental health I knew that I needed agency. I’d also been wanting to reconnect with the local voluntary sector, so there was a potential for opportunity in there as well. Little did I know how quickly and powerfully that opportunity would arrive.
On a personal front I had reconnected with Jayne and OCF a couple of months before the crisis hit and came away thinking “that’s a job I would quite like to do one day” – without really having any plan or thought as to how that might happen.
So, the crisis hit, and I threw myself at volunteering locally. I became a street champion and neighbourhood coordinator with the excellent Oxford Hub. I met up (via Zoom of course) with the wonderful people at Oxfordshire All In, and quickly found myself chairing a forum of local voluntary and community sector organisations who were at the forefront of the local response. Trying, in some small way, to give them time and space to connect, communicate and reflect. Many previous organisations I had been involved with in some way were there, and I made new friends too.
My message to the sector came from international humanitarian relief: “Build Back Better” – a phrase as simple as it sounds and as important as ever. It’s not necessarily one that many people would have thought relevant to Oxfordshire and the UK. And yet suddenly it was. While the origins may have lain in rebuilding a bombed building to be better than what had gone before, it is a concept that has moved on to include social structures and decision-making; and crucially, recognising crisis as a time of change and renewal that offered opportunity alongside the suffering and trauma of the disaster.
Separately to this, Jayne and OCF had developed the “Respond Better, Recover Stronger” strapline to frame the local response. It was quickly apparent (not for the last time) that our aspiration and vision was common and thinking aligned. OCF therefore engaged me to do some work to help think through what “Recover Stronger” meant in practice. I continued a process of engagement and interviews I had already started with a range of local leaders to understand where the sector was, what the risks were and where the opportunities might lie. One thing led to another and so here I am, Interim CEO.
But all of this still doesn’t quite answer why I wanted the role. Much of my working life has been focused on relationships. Working with older people, I loved finding time to talk with and hear the stories of people who had lived varied and interesting lives. The woman who claimed to have been the first woman in Europe to own an MG sports car; the man who others alleged had been part of a minor local mob empire; the ex-lecturer who refused to have central heating because he said that bringing the coal up from the cellar was what kept him fit and healthy.
At East Oxford Action I helped organise the Cowley Road Carnival and saw a host of different communities come together behind a multicoloured, multicultural vision of community cohesion that remains as beautiful and life-affirming as it is compelling. At Age UK Oxfordshire I learnt that the number of relationships you have aged 60 is the best predictor of how long and how healthily you are likely to live. As Executive Director at OXPIP I learnt the importance of early relationships, how our early experiences can shape our expectations and life chances.
So, where do relationships come from? Our immediate friends and family to be sure, but also, our neighbours, our colleagues and our communities. This extended network of connections is what gives our lives meaning and connection. They are what sustain us, in extremis quite literally. And they don’t just sit in one age or cultural group – at their best they span generations and cultures. The richness and diversity they offer are enriching, nourishing and uplifting.
Our modern world has become beset by division, over politics, Brexit, and notions of what is and isn’t acceptable to say. And yet, at heart, when we meet, when we speak, when we connect, as former Oxfordian Jo Cox so memorably said: “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”. I have seen projects connecting older people in South Africa with those in rural Oxfordshire, and connections made over food, music and common experiences of ageing. I have seen people experiencing mental health conditions in India, Ghana and Uganda connect and understand the common experience of stigma, lack of understanding and exclusion. I’ve seen levels of humanity and connection in Rwanda and Liberia between people who, according to their history, should have been at one another’s throats. I know the power of community, of connection, of relationships, to overcome the barriers and divisions that we create through fear, uncertainty and ignorance.
These barriers are not real but vested in our fears of loss of situation, wealth and status. If we can connect people and enable them to see the common humanity they share, then we will create a more cohesive and happy society.
And who is best placed to do this? The community and voluntary sector: the people who are knitting together our communities at the grassroots. The people who give up their time, energy, and wealth selflessly, without wish for recompense or reward, but knowing that they are helping to connect, to bridge, and to strengthen their local communities.
One thing that COVID has taught us is that we may all, at some stage, need to call on the kindness of strangers, so we must all invest in those local relationships – out of altruism, out of the need for connection, the need for purpose and meaning and out of the fear that one day we too, shall need the support of a more able or healthy neighbour. And the knowledge that both the offering and receiving of kindness are at the very essence of what it is to be human.
So, more of that please, and if I can do a little bit to foster such connections and compassion through my six months as interim CEO, then I will be proud, happy and relieved!
One thing that COVID has taught us is that we may all, at some stage, need to call on the kindness of strangers, so we must all invest in those local relationships – out of altruism, out of the need for connection, the need for purpose and meaning and out of the fear that one day we too, shall need the support of a more able or healthy neighbour.